New students often experience that one of the biggest challenges when starting university studies is to read academic texts. Of course, this has nothing to do with the students’ general reading skills; the reason is that academic texts are unfamiliar genres with a high academic level, the subject field is new, and the texts are often written in a foreign language. Academic texts have a different structure, a different purpose, a different argumentation style etc. For this reason, the students cannot just transfer the reading strategies they have been using in their previous school life, and they therefore need support to develop new strategies - particularly during their first year of study.
Moreover, different texts with different purposes are studied in different subjects. A literary historian and an anthropologist, for instance, will not be interested in the same things in a text, and a doctor and a physicist will read the same text but be interested in different things and have different pre-understandings.
Students need to develop strategies for their reading, rather than reading all texts linearly from the first letter to the last full stop without a focus. Developing reading strategies is basically about discovering that reading is a process: before, during and after the reading.
Before reading a text, students should get an overview of the type of text at hand and the purpose of reading it. This is important for how they will read it.
During the reading, the purpose determines the reader’s reading process as well as their note-taking while reading. Which paragraphs should I concentrate on the most, and which types of words/information are important to pay attention to, write down and remember afterwards?
After the reading, the content of what was just read should be used in one way or another. For instance by answering some questions, writing a brief summary or an explanation of a concept or discussing in your group what the difference is between the description in this text of a topic compared to that in a previous text.
As a teacher, using relatively little effort, you may support your students in developing their reading strategies and improving their academic reading - which will make reading easier for them and ensure that they benefit more from the texts they read.
First of all, you should help your students to decode the different types of academic texts, making sure that they know how to get an overview of each text before reading it. Try this activity, for instance reading academic text genres.
You also need to guide your students’ reading activity. When you select content, you consider why each text should be on the reading list, and what each text will contribute. Your students need to know about these considerations.
One text may contribute to creating an overview of a historical development. If you give your students this information, it is easier for them to grasp that they do not need to study the text closely and understand every detail, but should read the text extensively for an overview.
One other text may add nuances to the understanding of a concept. With this information, the students will know that they should read this text closely to understand the nuances. This type of information regarding the purpose of reading the text promotes a more focused reading approach. You may also help your students focus their reading by asking a few questions for them to answer based on their reading.
After the students have read the text, they should also use it actively to increase their understanding. You are therefore advised to state how they should use the text(s). You may ask them to write a brief summary, discuss some questions in their group, answer questions, state advantages/disadvantages, differences/similarities, strengths/weaknesses etc. in a form. There are many different ways of doing this. Where to find inspiration? Search for links in the right column for activities tagged with “Student preparation”
You should also make sure that your teaching is based on how the students have prepared for class. If, for instance, you go through the texts from beginning to end in class, the students will be less inclined to read and work through the texts from home, whereas if their work with the texts is a precondition for participating actively in class, they will be more inclined to prepare. In other words, you should consider how you include the students’ preparation in your teaching.